Mini-Marts Belong ... Where?

Christopher Peak PhotosIf no one lives near a convenience store, can it truly be considered convenient?

New Haven planning boards are mulling over that Zen-like koan as they consider the merits of allowing a gas station and convenience store to open at 670 Ella T. Grasso Blvd., near the thoroughfare’s intersection with Boston Post Road.

Part of the question under consideration is whether New Haven should clamp down on mini-marts, and where those markets should be located.

The site was formerly Santa Fleet Services, where commercial vehicles have refueled since approximately 2001. A potential buyer seeks to open up the tanks to any driver, a relatively minor tweak in the customer base that shouldn’t prove controversial. The second ask, however, for a 1,200-square-foot mini-mart on the property has drawn heat from professional staff and one commissioner; a final vote is scheduled take place in September.

Located in the Upper Hill, where it’s surrounded by two cemeteries, a park and a river, the site doesn’t have a residential customer base nearby to justify a cut-out from the zoning ordinance, city planners maintain. The project’s backers, meanwhile, claim that it’s impractical to run a gas station without an attached mini-mart. They argue that homeowners less than half a mile away will drive over to shop for canned goods, milk and baby products.

The project is weaving its way through the city’s multi-step review process. The applicant made his first pitch to the Zoning Board of Appeals at its most recent monthly meeting in mid-July, before it was looked over by the City Plan Commission the following night. The latter commission approved its coastal permit (despite some grumblings about the project’s overall merits), before kicking it back to the zoning board for a vote at its next meeting on a special exception for the gas station, a variance for the convenience store and a final sign-off on the project’s coastal site plan.

At the zoning hearing at 200 Orange St., attorney Tim Yolen argued that convenience stores are “almost necessary” to running a successful gas station.

“Over the weekend, I took the opportunity to drive around New Haven looking at any number of gas stations. It’s very hard to find any gas station in any place without a convenience store attached to it,” he said, on behalf of owner RM Associates and applicant Sardar LLC. He added that, because Santa Fleet Services operated on a subscription model without an attendant present, some type of structure would be necessary for a cashier.

But as an East Rock homeowner who wanted to move his aunt into an in-law unit also found out that same evening, the zoning board generally doesn’t consider a property-owner’s ability to make more money to be a land-based “hardship” worthy of a variance.

As Tom Talbot, the deputy zoning director, wrote in a report recommending the BZA deny the mini-mart’s application for a variance, the zoning ordinance doesn’t permit exceptions just because something might be a good fit. Rather, a variance is allowed only when all the zone’s permitted uses just don’t fit due to some peculiarity at that address. Because the applicant could run a gas station at the site — a use that is permitted in the IL zone, which is generally industrial but allows for commercial too — they couldn’t prove a hardship.

“The simple fact that the applicant is asking to conduct a use on the property which is permitted by Special Exception would seem to belie any claim that the zoning regulations allow for no reasonable use of that property,” Talbot wrote. “Apparently the underlying element of hardship is related to the idea that a free standing gasoline station is not a viable business model in an IL district without a convenience store. Staff is unconvinced.”

Yolen tried one other approach to win over the board members’ support, portraying the mini-mart as a boon to the neighborhood. He said that customers would drop by for milk, baby formula and diapers, from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.

“This is small [and] unobtrusive, and I believe it would benefit the community [in the Hill] and not just the people who are driving through for gasoline,” he said. “I hope that this board would understand the value of having a small convenience store on a very large piece of property, and I would ask this board to consider and determine whether this is in fact the best interest of that area.”

Talbot wasn’t buying it. “What is certain, in staff’s view, is the inaccurate representation of the store as an accessory use,” he wrote. All the items Yolen listed “have never been uses accessory to gasoline sales,” Talbot added, arguing that what’s typical is to sell items related to the car or small household and personal items.

Is this a case of just being a stickler for the rules? Talbot argued that as mini-marts pop up across the Elm City, planning staff need to clamp down.

“The proliferation of convenience stores in all portions of the city impacts the viability of such stores in areas where they are most appropriate,” he said. “Convenience stores are (and should be) located in areas with some adjacency to residential areas.”

The following night, City Plan Commissioner Leslie Radcliffe (who lives in the neighborhood) offered a different rationale for why convenience stores shouldn’t open untethered from a neighborhood: If residents aren’t coming in to shop for essentials, the likely customers will be youth buying cigarettes and rolling papers or using the lot as a pit stop for drag racing their cars or motorbikes down the boulevard.

While her four colleagues voted to approve the coastal plan for managing underground tanks, gas lines and stormwater infrastructure near West River, Radcliffe chose to abstain. She said she plans to listen to the applicant’s testimony at the zoning board — they didn’t show up at City Plan — and testify based on what she hears.

The next BZA meeting is scheduled take place on Sept. 12.

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posted by: southwest on August 10, 2017  1:28pm

Bad idea to many Mini Marts now some have two and three on a two block radius..they will say and do anything to get the approval and once they get it,it becomes a hangout for gangbangers and unsolicited behavior like,drug sales,gun sales,robbery of patrons and other unsavory behavior…plus you got a homeless shelter mid block which would become a haven for them after midnight..most mini marks attract undesirable after midnight..the owners look the other way because they don’t want troubles and to make money at any cost..what should actually be nice for that sight is housing for the homeless..efficient apartments or one bedrooms for them at a small fee now that would make more sense…but then to some city administrators don’t no the definition of common sense and values of what need to be done but just vote on knee jerk reaction..

posted by: Esbey on August 10, 2017  11:32pm

Talbot is just completely wrong about what are accessory uses to a gas station.  As someone says in the article, gas stations no longer exist without mini-marts, it is now essential to the business.

posted by: Seth Poole on August 11, 2017  11:05am

This is a very rational and beneficial project to support.  That area has lacked consistent business presence for more than three decades.  There are also a school and a very popular flea market nearby that will keep them present for years to come.  Besides, it will do wonders for weekend traffic for folks looking to gas up after they leave the flea market.  Tim, call in Doug H. to do an assessment of the weekend traffic along Ella T. Grasso Blvd.  You can send my consultancy fee to the house.

posted by: Hill Resident on August 11, 2017  3:20pm

We have 3 convenience stores on Washington Ave off the Boulevard in the Hill. There are 3 convenience stores on Congress Ave off the Boulevard in the Hill at the other end of this strip.There’s an Italian Market, a Dollar Store and a CVS on Orange Ave just off the Boulevard around the corner from this location. There are 2 stores (a convenience and a gas station/convenience) between that end of the Boulevard and Spring Street/Washington Ave. Come from ANY of the residential areas and you will pass a store. Homeowners less than half a mile away will NOT drive over to shop for canned goods, milk, baby products when they can get them within walking distance from their homes. While the Hill community appreciates Atty. Yolen’s expression of what HE believes will benefit OUR community, we don’t need to ‘drive around New Haven over the weekend’ to see what WE need. We KNOW the store won’t serve the community, only those who stop there to get gas and the proprietors who benefit from the sale proceeds. We KNOW that this strip of the Boulevard is often used as a ‘drag strip’ for bikes and modified cars who have been know to lock up traffic to run illegal races from the middle of the block to Washington Ave or I-95. We KNOW this would be an ideal spot for “Bike-Life” riders to amass and gas up before they take off to terrorize the rest of the city. We KNOW that since mom & pop won’t be stopping there to buy canned goods or milk or baby products, the front shelf items will be stocked with rolling papers, cigars from unrolling/re-rolling, energy drinks (that bear such names as MONSTER or CANNABIS or COCAINE). I live in the Hill, and this store will NOT be CONVENIENT for our community. And this is not a matter of NIMBY ... this is a matter of business taking advantage of the opportunity to make quick easy $ over the best interest of the community they reside in. We welcome them to sell gas ... in a gas station. The store is only a convenience for them to make more $.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on August 13, 2017  12:10am

Read the History of Gas Station.There Profit margins on gasoline sales are razor thin. Gas station used fix cars They would do Oil changes, Flat tires tune up’s. to make up the money difference. Now More and more a gas station’s bread and butter is,Bread and Butter Lottery Machines and the coffee and candy bars it sells in its convenience store. Most of these items generate much higher profits than gas..